“Fuel costs have almost tripled since 2004 and will most likely continue to rise. It‘s no surprise [that] fuel is the number one operating expense in the trucking industry today.” - Curtis Whalen, executive director of the Intermodal Motor Carriers Conference, speaking at the Evans Network of Companies‘ 4th annual agents meeting held in Washington D.C. July 2.
I talked to Bruce Stockton, vice president of maintenance and asset management for Con-way Truckload, about some of the changes occurring in over-the-road trucking due to high fuel prices. One of the more interesting things we discussed is how high fuel prices combined with stricter emission and engine idling regulations are forcing fleets to consider some radical new options for the future - options that aren‘t limited to equipment specs, either.
“We don‘t just have the operating needs of the highway tractor to think about - we‘ve got that 10 hour off-duty driver time we need to address as well,” he told me. “Right now, we‘re all looking at different auxiliary heating, cooling, and power system options for the sleeper berth that don‘t require us to idle the diesel engine. Question is, at what point does the technology and fuel get so expensive that it becomes much more economical to put a driver up in a hotel room?”
It‘s not a random thought where Stockton is concerned. This is a guy that‘s been thinking outside the box for a long time now - so long that it‘s safe to say he lives outside the box. During his career with Contractor Freighters Inc. (CFI) - later bought by Con-way in August 2007 for $750 million and renamed Con-way Truckload this year - Stockton focused on developing the most fuel-efficient and cost- effective tractor specs for his carrier‘s fleet.
He blends driver needs, fuel economy and cost of operation into a careful mix every year, searching for even small things that could be changed or deleted to give the tractors under his care a better efficiency footprint.
“We literally build a new truck every year, changing those specs that make sense in terms of fuel savings, driver comfort and acceptance, and operating costs,” Stockton explains. “Drivers are in many cases our best source of feedback and ideas because they are out there in the trucks every day, while we're behind a desk.”
Prior to its acquisition by Con-way, CFI's 2,100 company-owned fleet of trucks were a mix of
“Reducing idle time is a huge piece of our spec‘ing challenge long term,” Stockton told me. “We don‘t have impressive idle time numbers right now. We‘re about 40% idle time without an APU [auxiliary power unit]. But we want a system that doesn‘t produce emissions -- which is why we‘re looking at battery power [Kenworth‘s battery-based ‘Clean-Power‘ system to be specific] that is factory-installed.”
Yet there‘s a flip side to his thinking here, too - why make all of these high-dollar truck technology investments in the first place? Why not instead put a driver in a hotel for a night - or even several nights - where they can shower, do laundry, watch cable television, access the Internet, etc. Maybe that is a cheaper option long term.
“That would really change our equipment specs,” he noted. You‘re looking at going to day cab models, Stockton said, which would eliminate the weight of the sleeper compartment, could result in a smaller more fuel efficient engine, and lower both purchase price and operating cost per tractor unit as well.
One problem with the hotel room theory, Stockton quickly points out, is that there just aren‘t enough hotels and motels near truck stops. “Maybe we build facilities with ‘pods‘ for drivers, rented out for 10 hours that provide heat, cooling, a bed and a shower,” he says. “Structure a network of places like that, you‘ll approach near-zero idling industry wide.”
He readily admits that the “pod hotel” concept might not be popular with drivers, much less fleets. Then again, with diesel over $5 a gallon throughout much of the U.S., coupled to nearly 30 states with strict five minute or less engine idling rules, it‘s an option that might not fall on as many deaf ears as he thinks.
One thing is for sure, though - a range of new options, no matter how radical, needs to be considered. With the industry‘s fuel bill predicted to top $135 billion this year - up from $52 billion in 2003, just five scant years ago - trucking needs to put as many options on the table as it can.